Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Writer: Jeff Buhler, Matt Greenberg
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, Steven Schneider
Stars: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, John Lithgow
A distraught father exploits a cursed burial ground to bring his child back from the dead.
This analogy makes a stretch, but you’ll catch the drift. Think of director Mary Lambert’s 1989 “Pet Sematary” as the Marvel Cinematic Universe adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Not in terms of being lighter, brighter, or more “fun” the way many people popularly compare the two rivaling superhero styles. Rather, it’s emotionally driven by enigmatic personalities, relatively energized in spite of its themes, and maximized for broad entertainment appeal.
Adapted by Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg, directing duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 “Pet Sematary” qualifies as closer in tone to a DC Extended Universe interpretation of King’s source material. Using the same characters, everyone comes across as grimmer, and their circumstances more somber. It’s a movie whose persistently gloomy portents, for richer or for poorer, make for a distinctly dark mood.
Ordinarily, it might be poor form to pit one adaptation against another instead of evaluating each on independent terms. Except “Pet Sematary” 2019’s biggest twists directly depend on familiarity with the first film, or at least with the book. Kolsch and Widmyer want you to have “Pet Sematary” 1989 in your mind’s eye. Without expectations to toy with, the buzzed-about change involving you-know-what as well as a lesser bait-and-switch built around Jud’s Achilles tendon don’t have nearly the same sting.
Even temporarily, it would be foolhardy to pretend Lambert’s version doesn’t exist. “Pet Sematary” 1989 has as many memorable moments as any King adaptation, from Gage’s pale hand bobbling in his overturned casket to Dale Midkiff’s all-time great “no!” shouted while the boy’s shoe tumbles in slow motion. It’s not realistic to think any horror film fan could turn off the light on an indelible image like nightmare-inducing Zelda and look at “Pet Sematary” 2019 in a vacuum.
A “remake,” if we can loosely use that word to broadly categorize “Pet Sematary,” always faces a rock and a hard place dilemma. Change too much and diehards scream, “sacrilege!” Change too little and what’s the point in having two versions of largely the same thing? In this specific situation, the problem presented is that because the 1989 adaptation showed us what alternative options look like, some of “Pet Sematary” 2019’s deviations pale as lesser creative choices.
For all of the pearl-clutching purists did based on the trailer’s spoiler, the movie’s most controversial change proves to be its most inspired. Swapping Gage for Ellie at the story’s crucial pivot point isn’t a hollow hook being different as a shock-and-awe stunt. The switch matures the interaction dynamics of the movie’s main players in a way that renders accusations of redundancy moot.
Ellie’s agency recalibrates how their child relates to Louis and Rachel in life and after her reburial. There’s an intriguing element to her having the ability to communicate as well as manipulate outside of being chillingly, but emptily adorable. Zombie Gage has his own unique appeal as a villain and resurrected Ellie has hers. If it did nothing else, this take alone cements “Pet Sematary” 2019 as its own thing.
“Pet Sematary” 2019 encounters less success with the other ways it reconfigures characterizations. Like the overall movie, every person arrives accompanied by bleak baggage.
Jason Clarke’s arc from affectionate father to macabre mourner follows a shorter curve than Dale Midkiff’s. Chalk it up to playing cold roles in films like “Terminator Genisys” or “Winchester,” but Clarke’s inherent intensity puts his personality under overcast skies to begin with. His Louis Creed doesn’t feel like he is transforming into someone he shouldn’t be so much as becoming the troubled man he always was underneath.
Similarly, his relationship with wife Rachel receives one scene of giggling physical affection, a requirement for establishing any happy film family upon moving into a new home. After that, actress Amy Seimetz descends down a spiral of nagging guilt regarding her deformed sister’s death, depression due to her family’s fate, and abject fear for the horrors in her home. Seimetz precisely plays what the script asks from her part. Yet like her husband, Rachel rarely wears an expression that doesn’t radiate defeat, causing her to seem perpetually put-upon instead of gradually ground down into haunted madness.
“Pet Sematary” 2019 sorely misses the camaraderie between Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, which is essential to the 1989 film’s emotional core. Instead of establishing him as Louis’ “come on up to the porch and have a beer!” buddy, Jeff Buhler’s script weirdly sets up Jud as another father figure for Ellie, which she doesn’t need. Maybe material went missing from the final edit, but Jud doesn’t even meet Louis until he suddenly appears at the Creed Family dinner table. This doesn’t give the two men the affectionate bond they need for their burial ground journey to be believable.
In another strange slant on the character, John Lithgow plays Jud as curiously cryptic, occasionally standoffish, and more than a bit brusque in demeanor. While his performance stays strong, Lithgow’s Jud loses out to the infectious amiability Fred Gwynne put into the same person.
Victor Pascow comes up shortest of all, reduced to irrelevancy as an apparent afterthought addition. Louis ignores the apparition’s warnings not because he is obsessively blinded by grief, but because Pascow has an unnoticeable presence. While they were making changes, the filmmakers should have had the courage to excise some of this inconsequential content entirely.
What does make the cut constitutes a mean version of “Pet Sematary,” and I don’t say that derogatorily. The movie dunks itself in a steaming cup of dread that drips into every detail, whether it’s the twisted new addition to Zelda’s origin or the extended viciousness of Church the cat. This “Pet Sematary” takes Stephen King’s original intentions of piling terror on top of grief and pushes that cinematic sense of evil eeriness as far as it can go. The tradeoff sacrifices some palatable appeal.
Not unlike the forced metaphor mentioned earlier, one “Pet Sematary” versus another comes down to individual tastes. Some may prefer Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s gritty vision over Mary Lambert’s interpersonal take. Yet while I appreciate many of the detours “Pet Sematary” 2019 turns down from an originality standpoint, if I had to Sophie’s Choice which adaptation I’d rather press Play on for another watch, I’m picking 1989 every time.
Review Score: 65